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How Papua New Guinea outshone its richer neighbours with coronavirus response

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James Marape, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea
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James Marape, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea
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PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape

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James Marape, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea

The Pacific nation has recorded just seven deaths since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak

One-Minute Read Holden Frith
Thursday, November 26, 2020 - 12:03pm

While New Zealand has attracted international attention and praise for its response to Covid-19, a far poorer neighbouring nation may have managed an even more impressive result.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has a population almost twice as big yet has recorded just seven deaths and 645 cases, according to latest figures - compared with 25 deaths and 2,040 cases in New Zealand.

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The official figures come with a health warning, however. “The actual rate of infection is likely far higher,” says The Guardian, “with dangerously low rates of testing across the country.”

Even so, the numbers are impressive by European standards. Increased testing in response to a recent outbreak unearthed just “12 more cases from a significant cluster” in the PNG province of West New Britain, bringing the total number of confirmed infections in the area to 42, Radio New Zealand reports.

By contrast, the UK has recorded an average of 18,000 cases per day over the past week.

PNG’s relatively remote location in the southwestern Pacific is likely to have played a large role in its relatively low caseload, although unlike New Zealand, it does have a land border - a long, porous frontier with Papua, part of Indonesia. It is also significantly poorer, with GDP per capita standing at around $2,700 (£2,021), compared with $42,000 (£31,440) in New Zealand.

Although PNG avoided a full lockdown, the country’s government banned domestic travel, outlawed the sale of alcohol, prohibited public gatherings and introduced a curfew. “People were instructed to stay indoors between 10pm and 5am unless they needed urgent medical attention or had to go out due to an emergency,” says the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society.

In September, the World Health Organization said PNG was “taking the threat of the pandemic seriously” and praised its government for “strengthening the country’s health system and engaging communities to keep them safe from the virus”.

Ministers also imposed strict controls on incoming visitors, making “ankle bracelets mandatory for international workers arriving into the country on designated charter flights”, says the Daily Mail. The tags have to be worn during a two-week quarantine.

Other elements of the country’s response have been more eccentric, however.

In October, Prime Minister James Marape “defended plans to give millions of dollars to a local company for the development of an unknown Covid-19 treatment”, Australia’s ABC News reports. Infectious disease experts expressed doubts about the plan - and the previously unknown company that received the £2.2m grant.

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Coronavirus Covid-19 Papua New Guinea

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